SEOUL, JAN. 13 -- Kim Young Sam, the South Korean opposition leader who had vowed to overturn the results of last month's presidential election charging massive vote fraud, today held a cordial meeting with president-elect Roh Tae Woo.
The three-hour meeting, which started out with smiles and a handshake, underlined the remarkable course of postelection events.
Opposition leaders had predicted chaos and protests if Roh won the election, but the streets of Seoul have been clogged only with the usual throngs of cars and shoppers rather than students and riot police.
Indeed, the process of peaceful reconciliation appears well under way.
Next week, President Chun Doo Hwan is to have an unprecedented meeting with Kim Dae Jung, the other major opposition leader, who was sentenced to death on sedition charges in 1980 by Chun's government.
"We are working for reconciliation rather than fighting on the streets -- that's over," said an aide to Kim Young Sam. According to a senior official in the ruling Democratic Justice Party, or DJP, the meeting between Roh and Kim Young Sam signals "a new era of Korean politics," which the official described as "the politics of coexistence and reconciliation." Kim Young Sam said after the meeting today that his party "will help the DJP if it is working to improve the situation, but we will oppose it strongly if it is doing things wrong."
At the same time, Kim Dae Jung has vowed to continue pushing the fraud issue, and his crusade could draw more support during student protests likely in the spring. In a sign of the continuing volatility, a student protest is scheduled for Thursday to mark the one-year anniversary of the death of Park Chong Chol, a dissident student who died while being tortured by the police.
But overall the political situation in South Korea is much calmer than expected. This is partly due to Roh's large margin of victory -- 2 million votes ahead of second-place Kim Young Sam and third-place Kim Dae Jung -- and the failure of the opposition to convince voters that fraud was committed on a massive scale. Opposition voters, disappointed and frustrated by the failure of the opposition to unite, have refused to join sporadic student-led protests.
Now, rather than devising strategies to overturn the election, the chastened Kims are grudgingly accepting Roh as president and working hard to retain control of the demoralized opposition movement.
But time is not on their side. Key elections for the National Assembly may be held as early as next month, and the Kims' continued dominance of opposition politics is far from assured, according to diplomatic and political experts.
"They are in trouble, there's no question about it," said a western diplomat. Like most political specialists, he predicted that the Kims will hold on in the short term, but once the National Assembly elections are held, the tide could turn decisively against one, or both, of them.
The two Kims are under pressure to form a coalition, a step in which they both have expressed interest. But with each one bitterly blaming the other for failing to step out of the presidential race, and with each one refusing to meet the other, hopes are faint that they will come together for the National Assembly poll.
The split marks one of the great ironies of the postelection period: Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam, allies during most of their political careers, are willing to meet with their longtime enemies in the ruling party and government, but they refuse to meet each other.
Most political observers say the continuing opposition split further erodes the Kims' public support. This could pave the way for a strong showing by the ruling party, which hopes that the momentum gained from its victory in the presidential election will allow it to win a majority of the assembly seats.
In the meantime, a group of younger opposition legislators and activists is planning to announce a new political party in the next few weeks. The group, drawing on the support of lawyers, professors, religious activists and others, hopes to form the core of a revitalized opposition movement that will replace the parties led by the Kims.
"Political parties must be reborn," contended Hong Sa Duk, an opposition assembly member who tried to unite the Kims before the presidential elections. Hong is a leader of the new party. "The opposition parties of the past are inadequate to lead the country," he said, criticizing the authoritarian rule of the Kims and promising that the new party "will be managed in a genuinely democratic way."
In contrast to the opposition's disarray, Roh and the ruling party are on the offensive. Roh's meeting with Kim Young Sam today was another in a series of energetic moves to maintain the initiative and portray himself as a peacemaker.
Until he is inaugurated on Feb. 25, Roh has little actual power. But in a country where symbols take on a large importance, Roh appears to be scoring points with his conciliatory gestures and promises of amnesty for the more than 1,000 political prisoners still in South Korean jails. He is also reshuffling the party hierarchy and sifting through nominations for the party's National Assembly candidates.
His reconciliation efforts are also driven by pragmatic considerations, analysts say. Despite being a clear winner in the election, Roh is nonetheless a minority president, drawing only 36.7 percent of the votes. Because the ruling party is not assured of winning a majority of assembly seats, Roh faces the prospect of dealing with an opposition-controlled assembly. Under the new constitution approved by voters in October, the National Assembly has greater powers to exert real influence over state affairs.